April 27, 2013

Chatta Chowk, Red Fort, New Delhi

Among the various rules that a Mughal prince or noble was supposed to abide by as mentioned in the medieval text Mirzanama (“Code of the Gentleman”, a treatise on social etiquettes), is “A noble should never haggle with a merchant over the price of an article & pay whatever the latter demands immediately”. The merchants at Chatta Chowk Bazaar, the in-house (or should I say "in-fort") market commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1638-58) as part of his architecturally notable Red Fort in Delhi, must have made a lot from the trades they plied.

Led to by the gigantic Lahore Gate that forms the chief entrance to the fort, the Chatta Chowk is a long aisle, about 70 metre long, featuring an arched ceiling & lined with shops selling exquisite handicrafts & souvenirs. Also known as Meena Bazaar & Bazaar-i-Musaqqaf (“covered bazaar”), the bazaar’s design was implemented in the Red Fort for the first time in India. The story of its construction is also very interesting. One fine day, impressed by the fortresses in Persia & Lahore which featured a bazaar for the convenience of the ladies of the royal harem, Shahjahan decided to emulate the same in his fortress being constructed in Delhi. Perhaps Shahjahan also took into consideration Delhi’s hot climate which would have definitely impeded the royal family’s shopping trips to the bazaar that was slowly coming up along the Chandni Chowk street being designed by Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara Begum. He called Mukarmat Khan, the man overseeing the fortress’ construction & ordered him to have his will done. Such were the skills of Mukarmat Khan that even Shahjahan was blown away by the bazaar’s symmetry, magnitude & subtle grace when he first set foot in it after its construction.

The finest of all bazaars

Brilliantly covered with paint & stucco, exquisitely carved with floral patterns & Quranic inscriptions, the Bazaar was so striking that the European traveller James Fergusson describes it as “the noblest entrance known to any existing palace”. The vaulted bazaar also maintains the temperature at a bearable level compared to the other structures that seem to be ablaze in the Delhi heat. Shahjahan had Makrmat Khan build the bazaar right at the beginning of the fort complex to show off his lavish lifestyle & a flair for pleasures. As soon as a visitor enters the fort, he enters the bazaar & then the famed Naubat Khana whose red sandstone walls were covered with gold (refer Pixelated Memories - Naubat Khana). On both sides the bazaar is lined with 32 cells on both its ground floor & first floor. The ground floor cells were actually divided into two – the outer room was used to display wares & entertain customers, while the room on the back was the artist’s workshop & storeroom. The upper rooms were perhaps the artist’s house or his office where he undertook all his transactions & deals. Soon the shops at the Chatta Chowk were filled filled with all types of lavish items – precious stones, fine rugs & carpets, tapestries, ornate swords & daggers, luxurious silks, gold & silver ornaments, intricate wood work, splendid ivory items & exotic spices. Shahjahan took pride in the fact that for the exclusive use of his family, precious items such as rare spices, saffron & musk were available in this bazaar only in the whole of Delhi.

The Emperor's view

In the center of the arcade is an octagonal open space about 9 metres in diameter & christened as the Chattar Manzil which provides ventilation to the shops,. The octagonal court was finely plastered & painted. Sadly all of it is gone now. At one time, the bazaar also housed many tea shops where the nobles & generals would get together & share a warm cuppa under the watchful eyes of soldiers, free from all their worries since the fortress was the safest place in the entire city. Here they would discuss wars, administrative measures & gossip over the price of a horse or a fine dagger. After the Battle of 1857, the British took over the fort complex & like most of the structures within it, converted the Chatta Chowk also into a soldier’s barracks, which further led to a loss of its fine appearance. Later the British started giving these shops on rent. The Indian Army & the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) followed in the same tradition after the British vacated the country.

Chattar Manzil

Efforts are underway to restore the bazaar to its original look & add the same features that existed in the time of Shahjahan. These would include paint & plaster work for the entire bazaar, stucco work for the arches, lowering the level of the road that runs through the arcade & wooden doors for the shops. Today one can get amazing wooden masks from Kashmir, stone & wood idols of Hindu Gods & Goddesses, hand-painted cards & paintings, replicas of manuscripts, silver & imitation jewellery, traditional wallets, bags & purses and silk at the Chatta Chowk. Most of the merchants claim to be the direct descendants of the artists who worked for the Mughals. However the shops nowadays cater mostly to foreign tourists as the merchants quote exorbitant prices for their wares which the Indian visitors won’t pay. Sadly, we aren’t taught the Mirzanama anymore!!

Location: Red Fort, New Delhi
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Station
Open: All days except Monday
Timings: 10 am - 4 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Naubat Khana, Red Fort
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort

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